Monday, December 14, 2009

Mae Murray (right) prepares for her dreaded wedding night in "The Merry Widow," Von Stroheim's successful silent adaptation of the popular operetta. One of my favorite stills from my collection.

My vacation book report or what I finished up while trying to fight a cold.

Warning: The following post is for hardcore film fans, fan boys and other people willing to pick a nit with me.

Ever heard of director of actor Erich Von Stroheim? For the casual movie fan, Stroheim’s best known role of the butler Max in “Sunset Boulevard,” a role that Stroheim did care too much about.

Can’t blame him – the role of a washed up silent film director was a little too close to his own reality. Acclaimed for his successful films in the 1920s that presented stories of humanity showing all of our warts, Stroheim’s career was seriously impaired by a series of film projects that became known for going over budget and testing the limits of conventional Hollywood thinking.

The best well known of these was his adaptation of Frank Norris’ book “McTeague” into the film, “Greed.” His edit clocked in at about eight hours and reports by those who saw that version all concur it was a masterpiece. Stroheim wanted to break it into two four-hour blocks with a dinner break in the middle.

The current cut of “Greed,” and the only one available runs under two hours.

Stroheim made his living – after several other films – as an actor for other directors. He was seen by some as a tragic figure, a victim of the system and by others as man with self-inflicted wounds. His films remain fascinating and he as a man and artist is still almost complete contradiction.

I’ve been a Stroheim fan for years and was happy to find the most recent biography of the man by film historian Arthur Lennig. Now in the interest of full disclosure, I’m not a big fan of Lennig as he wrote some unnecessary criticism of my friend the late Alex Gordon in his biography of Bela Lugosi. But I found his Stroheim book in a used bookstore, so I knew my purchase wouldn’t pay him a nickel. I bought it and read it.

Lenning’s scholarship is quite good and he has done much of his homework to present as complete a picture as possible of Stroheim’s films and his life.

However, I amazed that he didn’t include what happened to Stroheim’s third wife Valerie, his mistress Denise Vernac or his two sons?

A biography tells a story of one person’s life, but there are other characters and they deserve an element of closure.

In fact, considering how long Lennig worked on this book and his detailed description of what he did to gather his information that he didn’t attempt to interview any of these key people was surprising to me.

Now I know first hand how difficult it is to get interviews with people who know the subject matter is going to be painful. Dave and Lou Fleischer both each politely turned me down for an interview for my book on the Fleischer studio. Perhaps Lennig tried and was rebuffed.

Interestingly enough, Valerie did do an interview for a 1979 documentary on her husband and her comments used on camera were not unfavorable, despite the fact he cheated on her for about 20 years.

But I was amazed Lennig didn’t see the human drama in the story of the two sons, each of who had successful careers in the film industry. How’s that for irony? Erich Von Stroheim Jr. acted and became a busy assistant director before his death from cancer in 1968. The last film on which he worked was “Medium Cool.”

Josef Von Stroheim was an Emmy-winning sound editor, who died in 2002.

Now here are two men who were working in the 1950s when their father was still alive. What did they think of him? What did he think of them? Did they have any relationship? What was it like being saddled with the name of “Erich Von Stroheim Junior” and working in the film industry?

Although there is much to compliment Lennig for in his book, he missed the boat on what the late Paul Harvey used to call “the rest of the story.”

Here's an even pickier nit:

Lennig implies that “Queen Kelly” – the aborted collaboration between Von Stroheim and Gloria Swanson about a convent girl inheriting a whorehouse and becoming the queen of the madams! – was Joseph Kennedy’s sole effort as a film producer. Not true. The patriarch of the Kennedy family, while not bust cheating on his wife with Swanson, owned FBO studios and played a key role in the creation of RKO.

© 2009 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

1 comment:

DOuG pRATt said...

Mike -- Speaking of Erich von Stroheim, I just posted the "Autocrats" installment of "Hollywood" at this link: